Six steps to becoming school principal

The route to becoming a school principal can follow many paths, but here are some tips to help you navigate your way

Tes Editorial

A Headteacher Standing In The Playground

Shadow your current principal

A principal who is willing to show you the ropes can be invaluable. 

“Mentoring from an experienced principal, placements and job shadowing are great accelerators, exposing future principals to real-life experiences and lessons,” says James Toop, former chief executive of education charity Ambition School Leadership.

Become an all-rounder

Showing your versatility can be decisive in convincing governors you’re right for their school. Teaching will rarely be your main priority and the strategic vision for the school will often give way for more practical concerns.

“Absolutely everything will be your responsibility,” says John Rutter, principal at Inverness High School.

“You will be, along with everything else on your remit, head janitor, chief first-aider and occasional receptionist. So, be prepared to wash up pupil vomit, dress wounds, buy the office milk and drive the minibus.”

Supplement your qualifications

Although a formal qualification remains the most popular route to becoming a school principal, many recruiters see in-school experience as equally valuable.

“To be a really good principal, you have to experience elements of the role that you can’t access independently until you’re actually doing a version of it,” says Nichola Smith, principal at Meadstead Primary Academy in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Get to grips with the finances

“In my experience,” says principal John Tomsett, “new principals rarely understand the intricacies of the school budget. Thankfully, there is much you can do now as an aspiring leader to ensure that you are better prepared if you get the top job.”

With school budgets coming under increasing pressure, principals need to know how to balance the books. This is something that will inevitably come up at interview and it pays to have some experience you can reference.

“Shadow the school finance manager and get to know the detail of the school budget and the annual rhythm of budget planning,” says Tomsett. “You could also volunteer to manage a significant element of the school budget and accept the accountability that comes with such a responsibility.”

Behave like a principal

“One of the key things that always strikes me,” says Tes recruitment director Michael Watson, “is that the persona of a leader is often missing. A lot of candidates, certainly those who are deputy principals, they still have the persona of a deputy principal.”

While Michael admits that gaining experience and implementing whole-school policy is essential in your route to the top, you need to make sure you can take ownership of the outcomes and talk about them with confidence.

“What you really need to convey is leadership quality,” he continues. “Most candidates have leadership experience but they find it very difficult to explain. There’s a slight arrogance to it, but you’ve got to project yourself as a leader, through your application form and through your interview.”

Choose a school that’s right for you

If you’ve put in a huge amount of groundwork on your way to being principal, don’t ruin it by choosing a school where you won’t last. Choosing a school that fits with your own personal teaching ideology will vastly improve your chances of landing the top job. In addition, finding governors that support your vision will make your life a lot easier once you’re in position.

“It is easy to be fooled into thinking that the selection is one way – that the school chooses you,” says Keziah Featherstone, head of Q3 Academy Tipton.

“Like any real partnership, it has to be a two-way process. It is essential that you find the right place and do not rush into promotion.”

Ready to take the step up? Browse the latest leadership jobs